Jean Arnold Sessions
Women of Wine (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Jean Arnold Sessions started consulting at Hanzell Vineyards in 1999. In 2002 she married Hanzell’s iconic winemaker Bob Sessions, a widower twenty-ish years her senior. There were whispers, maybe a tsk-tsk or two when she stepped into the top spot after Bob retired. Jean ignored them. She’d had starring roles, after all, at Chateau Montelena, Jordon, Chateau St. Jean and Chalk Hill.
Sessions admits that the wine business is still mostly run by men, but from her perch as president of the venerable Hanzell Vineyards, an historic estate that makes expensive, age-worthy chardonnay and pinot noir grown on 200 acres in the Mayacamas, the view from her personal Queendom is more than fine. She does business using what she calls “feminine leadership,” espousing a nurturing management style, consensus building and intuitive (“that used to be such a bad word!”) decision-making. Sessions thinks it’s OK to show vulnerability.
But don’t confuse her femininity with weakness. Sessions knows her stuff. She proved that when she steered Hanzell through its darkest hour, successfully battling cork taint. And again when she championed the digging of wine caves that upped the winery’s highly profitable direct sales by 35 percent. Hanzell and Bob Sessions were an industry synonym, so replacing him as winemaker involved a crucial choice. She ultimately found Michael McNeill, a veteran of Chalone, who understood the dictates of winemaking for a heritage property, as opposed to making his own mark. “He listens,” Jean says, a comment that speaks volumes.
Rising in the wine world largely because of her marketing ability, Session’s vivid blue eyes never abandon the person with whom she’s speaking. She gives the same answers to questions she’s been asked many times with a convincing lilt, as if sharing for the first time, for instance, that sparkling wine is her frequent favorite. A diamond-studded heart adorns her neck, a gift from Bob, now 79, who she calls, “A charming gentleman. Such a lovely, lovely man,” using a cadence of affection reserved just for him.
Sessions’ successful battle with breast cancer in her early days at Hanzell fueled a desire to give back. Hence, the Jean Arnold Foundation and the annual Jean’s Pajama Party, a bash that celebrates women who “thrive, strive, and survive,” and has raised more than $50,000 for the Sonoma Valley Hospital’s mammography program.
Since the economic downturn of 2008, selling a luxury brand like Hanzell has become more arduous, and Sessions hasn’t taken a vacation in three years. “We make a huge effort to educate wine buyers. People have to understand our quality to understand our price.” Hanzell makes cellar wines, those that improve with age; they’re smooth, mellow and refined. Like Sessions herself.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)